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Can We Talk About Joan Rivers? 5 Life Lessons for Lawyers

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on September 05, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Another week, another comic lost. This time it was Joan Rivers, who died Thursday following complications from a minor medical procedure that left her in cardiac arrest. Rivers was 81.

Joan Rivers was a trailblazer, starting out as a female comic in an era where everyone else -- except maybe Phyllis Diller -- was a man. Because she had to wade through a lot on the road to stardom, Joan Rivers can offer some lessons for lawyers when it comes to perseverance and humor.

Here are five things lawyers can learn from the way Rivers lived her life:

1. When Things Look Bad, Don't Expect the Situation to Improve; You Need to Improve.

The life of a comic just starting out isn't very glamorous; you're always wondering when your next gig will be, where you'll get your next paycheck.

As a female comic starting out in the 1960s, Rivers had to deal with discrimination on top of everything else. But as she told fellow comic Louis C.K. in a 2011 episode of "Louie": "Listen, I wish I could tell you it gets better, but it doesn't get better. You get better. I've gone up, I've gone down, I've been bankrupt, I've been broke. But you do it, and you do it because we love it more than anything else. That's why you're doing it."

Perhaps most relevant to lawyers, she told Louie, "What we do is not a job ... what we do is a calling, my dear." You can watch a clip from the episode below:

2. Be Able to Make Fun of Yourself.

It's no secret that Joan Rivers had a lot of plastic surgery over the years. Joan didn't keep it a secret -- and she didn't sacrifice valuable comedy, either. Some of her best jokes were about her own plastic surgery, such as:

  • "I've had so much plastic surgery, when I die, they will donate my body to Tupperware."
  • "I wish I had a twin so I could know what I'd look like without plastic surgery."
  • "I was so ugly that they sent my picture to Ripley's Believe It or Not and he sent it back and said, 'I don't believe it.'"

3. Sometimes You Have to Say What Everyone Else Is Thinking.

Joan Rivers was no stranger to controversy: She was criticized for her humor as well as her political statements. And that's not even counting all of the things she said while hosting various award shows and fashion-critique shows. Through it all, Rivers was never afraid to say exactly what she thought, and also never afraid to tell her critics what she thought of them.

4. You've Got to Keep Up With the Times.

Even in her 80s, Rivers embraced the Internet and with it, the new ways she could connect to people: "Because I'm on the Internet so much, I can answer any question and keep up with these young, smart, talented comics," she told the Boston Globe last year.

She also wasn't afraid to change with the times. Even though she was pretty blue in her comedy, it wasn't always that way: "Who knows what can be considered dirty when there are no boundaries? Lindsay Lohan is on drugs and comes out with a movie and everyone loves her again. When I started out, you couldn't even say you were pregnant onstage, and now it's all about vaginas."

5. Yes, You May Have to Deal With Suicide.

Lawyers can develop emotional problems and deal with them in the wrong ways. Joan Rivers knew about this: After the spectacular failure of her 1986 late-night talk show -- which resulted in her not only being disowned by her good friend, Johnny Carson, but blacklisted by his successors -- her husband, who produced the talk show, killed himself.

On the occasion of Robin Williams' suicide last month, Rivers told the Asbury Park Press that suicide was unexpected: "Think about it. Robin had everything, a great deal of success, more money than he could ever spend. Respect from the industry. He was a comic, who could do the serious roles. All that and he still killed himself. You never know what's happening with people. They can have it all and still be in this very dark place."

Perhaps the most practical takeaway for lawyers from Joan Rivers' life: Through all the ups and downs, she maintained a sense of humor -- something that all of us can benefit from.

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